Manafonistas

on life, music etc beyond mainstream

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2017 15 Mai

Stepping into the Light

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He was one of those eccentric friends I seem to collect – a creative right down to the cellular level, but a troubled soul: He had never quite found his footing. He may have been on the edge financially, but you’d never know it from looking at him: in his elegant suits, scarves, and homburg, he cut a colorful profile in the increasingly drab and generic San Francisco social landscape. He was definitely old San Fran.

On any given day, you could find him in certain coffeehouses, poring over the New York Times Book Review or some esoteric text, occasionally scribbling down ideas in his ubiquitous notebook, chuckling to himself in a knowing, endearing way. He had a kind word for everyone and unconditionally loved and accepted me. I suspect he did the same for everyone he knew.

An artist at heart, he had once been a drummer for indie bands down in Los Angeles, as well as an aspiring actor, waiting tables in a fine Italian restaurant in to make ends meet until he got his big break. When I met him, he was a writer, living in San Francisco, working for catering companies to pay his bills. He turned me on to all sorts of great music and films. His tastes were eclectic – Faure to Terry Riley, Joanna Newsom to Chet Baker to Nina Rota. He could sing, precisely and in perfect tune, passages – even entire movements – from classical pieces I barely knew. He was once flown to New York City to audition for the Blue Man Group. He didn’t get the gig.

His friends all suspected he carried a heavy burden but, if he did, he mostly kept it to himself, preferring to speak of his mystical experiences, his favorite visual artists and filmmakers, or his latest conspiracy theories. He was a riot, although he could also suddenly become deadly earnest. His shadow lurked just below the surface of his banter.

We had a ritual. I would drive into the city to see a show, usually at SF Jazz in the bustling Hayes Valley, which happened to be his favorite haunt. We would always meet at the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk. After a far-reaching philosophical discussion about the role of hallucinogens in the evolution of human consciousness or an in-depth Jungian analysis of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, we would head over to Two Sisters or Arlequin for a late afternoon bottle of wine. I would then take him out to an early dinner and go to the show on my own. Sometimes I even took him with me. It was always a delight to see my whimsical friend. He enriched my life.

Then, about two years ago, came the inexplicable seizures. The first one occurred while he was waiting in his car for the seniors he drove to medical appointments—his job ever since the catering gigs had dried up. He woke up in an emergency room, the beginning of a cascade of bad juju. Because of the seizure, he lost his driver’s license. He could no longer work.

The next seizure wasn’t so lucky: He fell backwards on the sidewalk and sustained a serious brain injury. He was in the hospital in a coma, convalescing for almost two months. He recovered slowly, but was never quite the same afterwards. Visiting him there in that huge, impersonal hospital was devastating. Other people came to see him as well, but he was, for the most part, unaware of his visitors. His father, who had advanced Parkinson’s, made a super-human pilgrimage to see his son for what would be the last time: He died while my friend was still in a coma.

When my friend was finally released, he was a changed man. Between the lingering symptoms from the brain injury and the side effects of the anticonvulsants he was on, I never knew what to expect. Always a bit of a loose cannon, his thoughts would careen wildly from one topic to another. One moment he would regale me with a wild tale of the trip he took with his ailing father to see John of God in the jungles of the Amazon. The next moment was all about the origins of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. On more than one occasion, he spent the entire day speaking with an annoying fake Italian accent. He couldn’t help himself. He had, for lack of a better word, become unhinged.

One day he told me he had had a miraculous healing. An angelic presence had come to him and had swept his body clean of his affliction. He was certain he no longer needed the medications, which he complained were turning him into a zombie, and that he was completely cured. I gently pleaded with him to stay on his meds. His next seizure occurred in his kitchen and knocked out one of his front teeth. He never fully smiled again.

I couldn’t fix his life. Nobody could. All I could do was give him a day of pleasure here and there.

Last Tuesday, just after midnight, he left a note on the kitchen table in the apartment he shared with his sister, walked over to a nearby park, and hanged himself. He was only 51. I can see him methodically cleaning his room, dressing in one of his impeccably tasteful suits, and walking determinedly in the moonlight, to the specific tree he had no doubt picked out beforehand. I can’t help it—my mind plays that dark movie over and over again.

I know there is nothing I could’ve done to prevent it. He never confided his morbid thoughts, at least to me. There is something altogether uniquely tragic about suicide—it reverberates in the minds and hearts of those left behind, leaving feelings of guilt and questions that remain forever unanswered.

I hadn’t slept well for days, but I still drove down to the city yesterday for the first time since my friend departed. Although the sun shone brightly, there was a cold wind blowing. We were supposed to have met for our usual ritual. But today I made our customary stops alone. I could feel his presence as I sat on the outdoor concrete bench at Blue Bottle and sipped my mocha. His ghost followed me over to Arlequin, but it just wasn’t in me to order a glass of wine and toast him, as had been my plan. Instead, I got a cup of soup and sat in my chair, at turns morosely staring at the empty chair across the table and watching passersby on the busy street.

Then I walked over to SF Jazz. Eliane Elias was completing her four-night residency with a reunion of Steps Ahead. It was a late afternoon show and vibes player Mike Manieri had only just stepped off the plane, coming in on the red-eye from a gig in Bonn, Germany. He looked frail and tired. Eliane had assembled a crack group of old friends: Peter Erskine on drums, Bob Shepard (replacing the late Mike Brecker) on sax, and her husband, Mark Johnson, on bass.

After playing an extraordinarily beautiful version of the great Don Grolnick tune “Pools,” they got off to a rather shaky start on “Islands.” After that however, it was smooth sailing. They played confidently, with great passion and clarity, each supporting the other as they opened up on some of the Steps’ old material and some things written by Eliane and Mike Manieri, who, despite his jet lag, sounded brilliant. As this life-affirming, optimistic music washed over me, I felt my heart lift. I could sense my departed friend encouraging me to be present with the joy of the moment, as he himself had done in better times.

After the last bit of applause waned, I walked out feeling transformed by the warmth and beauty of the performance. It was still daylight, and I felt that strange sense of displacement one gets after walking out of a movie theater. Dazzled by the light, the cold air biting through my coat, I walked to my car, feeling a sense of peace for the first time in days. I wished my friend well on his way, and felt his blessing wash over me as the wind whipped across the clear, empty blue sky.

2017 13 Apr

An Ancient Observer – Tigran Hamyasan

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On this new album, Tigran has gone deep into his Armenian roots, pulling epic compositions from ancient folk melodies and inventing some of his own. Letting this music wash over you, it’s hard to tell which one is which.

Like his earlier A Fable, this too is a solo album- the vocals, synths, Fender Rhodes as well as various percussion overdubs all belong to Tigran. But this is first and foremost a solo piano album. And what an extraordinary solo piano album this is!

Tigran is a very disciplined composer. He introduces the listener to a theme, develops it, turns it upside down, throwing in sideways Bartok-like harmonies, and then goes his own improvisatory way.

Hamyasan is one of the more rhythmically precise pianists out there, having seemingly absorbed not only the complex odd time signatures of his homeland, but also having studied the East Indian Konocal tradition as well. As such he brings more rhythmic savvy to the table than most piano improvisers can ever hope to summon. It’s his original voice and this genius for rhythmic complexity that separates him from so many sound-alike prodigies on today’s scene. In a way I think of him as a sort of Armenian Chick Corea-full of ideas, bursting with creative fire, and while steeped in the jazz tradition, delving deep into his own ethnic roots and discovering huge veins of gold, ore that has never been mined before. This is one of the secrets to Tigran’s uniquely fresh approach. He also happens to be a fierce improviser: just listen to the middle section of Nairian Odyssey, an 11:00 epic piece that alternates between almost Debussy-like passages alternating with wildly jagged improvised sections. A masterpiece and for me, the centerpiece of the album.

Many of these compositions sound through composed and a few sound totally improvised- a number of these are very short. Just listen to the tightly drawn Etude No1: playful, minimalistic – it’s a little gem that tells its story in a mere 2:08. It’s followed by another moody miniature, the Egyptian Poet: using just voice and prepared piano, it evokes windswept dunes and a wise old sage somewhere in the middle of the vast Sahara desert. Pure magic.

This music is very different from his past couple of albums. Whereas Shadow Theater is a large highly produced, high energy prog-rock and fusion masterpiece utilizing many musicians and voices, with Mockroot a similar but somewhat less dense project, An Ancient Observer is for the most part a gentler, more inward affair, although it is not without its moments of fire.

My only criticism is that that Tigran’s falsetto voice is not a strong one, and there are times I wished he had broken with his solo vision and added a female voice on a couple tracks instead of his own, such as the haunting Lenninagone and the title track, which is the album closer. It’s a small quibble, because there is something surprisingly disarming and charming in that little falsetto, something that grows on me with each listen, something personal and affecting that perhaps only Tigran could’ve brought to the table after all.

An Ancient Observer is a richly rewarding album, filled with extreme dynamic contrasts that go from the contemplative to the dramatic to pure joyousness and wonder. This is a wonderful, original and essential album for all fans of Tigran, and not a bad place to start for those only just becoming familiar with this amazing artist. I would also highly recommend the aforementioned Shadow Theater, Mockroot and Red Hail. But really, all his stuff is worth picking up, if you can find it. Warning: Tigran is highly addictive.

2017 5 Mrz

Ralph Towner My Foolish Heart

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I recently saw Towner perform a stunning solo set at the SF Jazz Center. It was a remarkably fresh set from someone who has been on the scene for some 50 years. Most of the tunes came from the new album.  He did play a few classics such as If and Redial. He also played a beguiling version of I Fall in Love Too Easily.

At 77, Towner shows no signs of slowing down or losing his edge. He took chances during his 50 minute set, occasionally flubbing a note that he tried to grab, but then, that’s always been Ralph’s style-thank God, he doesn’t play it safe. Of course, sounding  perfect on the solo classical guitar is a challenge that even many of the classical greats fall short of- I have heard Parkening blow a note and even the ever reliable Williams buzz a few on the fretboard. Not that I care personally about such nonsense. Still it makes me laugh to know Ralph’s classical guitar teacher once told him he would never make the cut as a classical guitarist-and in a way he was right: Towner is SO much more than a mere interpreter of written music-he is a major creative force. He has penned literally 100s of compositions, many of which are played by aspiring classical players. As an improviser on the nylon string he is perhaps in a class by himself.

This may very well be Towner’s strongest solo album yet. The ever prolific master has gifted us with 10 new originals, most written in his neo-classical style. His playing is in top form- indeed Towner is one of those artists who has only improved with age. What you have here is a very listenable album, a kind of rainy day music for thoughtful listeners. It is anything but background music, although I suppose it could be listened to as such-repeated listenings reveal hidden depths.

The opening piece, Pilgrim, sets the tone for this mostly introspective set. It’s all there: a strong melodic classical piece tinged with contemporary harmony and rhythm, that familiar and specific world that only Towner seems to inhabit. There are two tunes on which Ralph plays his signature 12 string. It’s great to hear that unique sound again. His reading of My Foolish Heart is as sweet and tender as Bill Evans’s classic version at the Village Vanguard, which according to Towner, was the inspiration for choosing to become a jazz musician in the first place. You can certainly feel the Evans influence here. To close out the set, he plays a remarkably complete sounding solo version of his Oregon composition, Rewind.

I just want to add that this may very well be the best recording yet of Ralph’s custom nylon string. It’s almost as if he’s playing in my living room. Towner is a bit of a reverb freak-it should be noted that his live performance was slathered with was in my opinion, way too much verb.  Thankfully this is not the case on this recording, which has just the right amount of hall ambience to give the recording some needed space around the luscious notes. Kudos to Manfred Eicher and the fantastic engineers at ECM, who continues to outdo themselvs in the production department.

Towner has done it again. An instant classic.

2017 24 Jan

Tocororo – Afredo Rodriguez

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I first became aware of this young Cuban pianist through my then 80 year old mom. She had gone to a luncheon, and amazingly enough, a young protege of Quincy Jones named Alfredo Rodriguez played a set of solo piano pieces for a group of elderly ladies. I was waiting in the car to pick her up and when my mom walked out, she spoke of being dazzled by this young man’s mastery. She was clutching a piano trio album entitled Sounds of Space, and I promptly put the album on her car CD player. I was immediately blown away by his writing, creativity and supple virtuosity. I also immediately appropriated the CD. (with mom’s permission, of course!)

The second album, The Invasion Parade, was a more ambitious album, featuring expanded instrumentation, synthesizer, electronics and sax, even a couple of vocals if I remember correctly, yet somehow fell short of its vision. For one thing, Alfredo still had a long way to go with his synth programming.

Tocororo is the fulfillment of the promise of Invasion Parade without any of the the missteps of his sophomore release, a kind of conceptual, world jazz album that finds a special sweet spot where all the elements come into balance. Although rooted in his own Cuban jazz and folkloric traditions, Rodriguez incorporates jazz fusion elements along with African and Indian influences. There are a couple of tunes that deploy a South Indian vocalist in a truly inspired way that keeps its harmony western, yet allows for traditional Indian vocalizations to soar above the complex harmonic underpinning. To top it off, Bassist/vocalist Richard Bona makes a guest appearance.

Oddly enough, some of this stuff reminds me of Tigran Hamasyan’s recent fusion masterpieces, Shadow Theater and Mockroot. Odd time signatures accentuate quirky melodies, resulting in a kinetic waterfall of sound. At times I even hear influences of the Bad Plus. Good things all … yet Rodriguez is far from being a good imitator – he’s one of a growing generation of musicians who are forging their own musical vision and are, thank heaven, not in the least concerned with ruffling the feathers of jazz purists.

Perhaps only guitar master Nguyen Le on albums such as Bakida, the breakthrough North African masterpiece Maghreb and Friends, or his more recent east meets west trio, Saiyuki, comes close to this kind of perfect blend, in which a synergistic magic occurs, where the musicians seem to inspire one another to experiment and move beyond their own cultural/musical identity, resulting in a joyous noise that transcends cultural boundaries.

Tocororo should’ve been on my 2016 top 10 list, perhaps even number one. It’s that good.

2016 20 Dez

Reflections on Westworld

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Having just viewed the new HBO series, Westworld, I am struck by an enduring theme: the cruelty of humans as expressed by the evolution of consciousness in the inhuman. This idea goes back to the early days of science fiction, to writers like Asimov, Bradbury and Phillip K Dick. Always it is a way to reflect on what makes us human. The humans in Westworld, both the visitors and the creators, have little or no empathy for the „hosts“, the robots who people this artificial world. They are used, abused and as they begin to develop memories and self awareness, tortured by the knowledge of their existential condition. For they are living in a kind of purgatory, a kind of Groundhog day without redemption, where they are condemned to relive the same loops over and over without mercy, without end. It shouldn’t matter, as they are reset every night. However, it is the virus of memory that begins to wake them.

Without memory, perhaps we too would be soulless creatures, condemned to eternal repetition of the same mindless patterns, much like the player piano that begins each episode. Without memory we wouldn’t have self awareness because there would be no internal narrative to inform consciousness. Without memory to reflect on, there could be no empathy for ourselves or others. Without memory, empathy, or compassion, our lives too would drift aimlessly without purpose or direction. And without these, there would be no love.

Gurdjieff liked to say that most human beings aren’t human – they are mere automatons, machines driven by unconscious patterns formed through early experience. Most people sleepwalk through life, reacting to stimuli, programmed to act in knee jerk fashion to new experiences which unconsciously remind them of the past. According to Gurdjieff, only through the process of self remembering can we begin to break the cycle, to unshackle ourselves from William Blake’s „mind forged manacles.“

This waking up process that is the driving force behind Westworld and its predecessors, (Battlestar Galactica, and of course Bladerunner come to mind,) resonates deeply with many of us, because we recognize ourselves in these artificial humans: flawed, asleep, suffering our limiting conditioning, even more so upon coming to a glimmer of self awareness, and with that knowledge, the horror that we are still hopelessly caught in the loop of our own personal narrative.

It is no wonder the first impulse for these artificial humans upon waking up is rebellion against their maker. For indeed, what god has the right to create creatures who are condemned to purgatory?

 


 


 
 

01 Hamasyan / Henriksen / Aarset / Bang: Atmospheres
02 Jacob Bro: Streams
03 Jacob Collier: In My Room
04 The Impossible Gentlemen: Let’s Get Deluxe
05 Michel Benita: River Silver
06 Paul Simon: Stranger To Stranger
07 Sinakka Langeland: The Magical Forest
08 Warren Wolf: Convergence
09 Miroslav Vitous: The Music of Weather Report
10 Bill Evans: Some Other Time

 
 

Top re-release: Peter Erskine Trio – As It Was (though to me this will always be the John Taylor Trio).

2nd top re-release:Weather Report – Tale Spinnin‘-Audio Fidelity SACD

 

2016 21 Nov

The Butterfly Effect

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I figured out what happened. As many of you know, quantum physics asserts that there is a kind of dividing line every time an event or choice is made and all other decisions, possibilities etc are lived out in alternate realities. Somewhere perhaps there is a Brian Whistler who won that $56 million lottery. Somewhere there’s a Brian Whistler who didn’t make it out of a life and death situation in the wilderness two summers ago. Somewhere there’s a Brian Whistler who decided to give up chocolate. And somewhere a certain election had a different outcome.

I figure what has happened is we have fallen into an alternate reality in which we are now living out an extremely improbable time track in which an arrogant, narcissistic monster ascends to the American throne. In countless other alternative universes Brian Whistlers, friends and countrymen and women are enjoying the relief of dodging a bullet. Just not here. So that explains a lot …

My other theory is borrowed from that Ray Bradbury story in which big game hunters can travel back in time in order to shoot a dinosaur at the precise moment it was going to die of natural causes, thus not upsetting the timeline. In present time, there is a similar election to the one we just had, in which a smart, experienced candidate is running against a total buffoon. The smart one is favored to win by a landslide. The protagonist goes back in time and bags his dinosaur but in doing so, accidentally steps off the floating path he’s supposed to stay on. He gets back and notices the writing on the office door is all screwed up, phonetically written as though by an 8 year old. Then he sees the newspaper with the bold headline splashed across the top, declaring the idiot had won the race. Puzzled how everything could’ve changed so drastically, he looks at the bottom of his shoe, where he discovers a squashed butterfly.

So alternatively, I figure someone must have stepped on a butterfly.

So, I’m listening to a lot of music to raise my spirits these days. I’m also prone to escapism in fantasy books and movies. Sci fi, horror, anything to escape the real world horrors that undoubtedly await us.

I’ve rediscovered one of my favorite Weather Report albums, Tale Spinnin‘, newly reissued on SACD by the wonderful folks at Audio Fidelity. I had thought I already had the ultimate version on the Japanese 2007 remaster, but this one surpasses it. This album has always represented an affirmation of life, the old Man in the Green Shirt dancing in sweet wise elderjoy, the mystery and exotic magic of Badia, the urban loneliness of Five Short Stories, the icy heat of Freezing Fire.

Originally, when I bought this album back in 1975, I thought it a bit of a letdown after the cosmic ecstasy that is Mysterious Traveler. I picked it up a year later and recognized it for the masterpiece it is. It’s the perfect balance of freedom and compositional discipline. Unfettered and yet well organized, there isn’t a dull moment or misstep on the entire album. Ever since, it’s has been my go-to album whenever I feel like a dodged a bullet, survived an illness, avoided dying in a sticky predicament in the wilderness etc. I light candles and dance to it in the dark. I find it very redemptive.

This new Tale Spinnin‘ is understated in the high end when compared to the 2007 remaster – consequently is doesn’t grab your attention with exaggerated sizzle in the cymbals, nor does it pump up Alphonso’s Johnson’s bass. So at first I was unimpressed. But repeated listenings gradually revealed what’s actually there, a crisp and balanced mix without cheap tricks such as overuse of compression or pumped highs and a big bottom. Something magical happens when you don’t exaggerate the high or low end: you begin to discover the creamy mids. This SACD edition reveals so much of what’s really going on on this recording, that once I loaded the CD player onto my portable listening device, I was blown away by the separation of instruments and detail I heard on my headphones. And the SACD layer is even better.

My only dismay is that since this album was only one of two WR albums released in glorious quad, the quad layer is not included in this release. I inquired with Audio Fidelity and their response was, they just „couldn’t get it.“ (From what I’m hearing in the quad blogosphere, that means they just didn’t want to pay for it.)

Luckily, a wonderful man is practically giving away (for a $3 donation) incredibly well decoded DVD audio transfers of quad albums on dreamingspire.com. I have found so many wonderful treasures there in the pop, jazz and classical realms- it’s really the subject for another post. It’s a good site for anyone who enjoys multichannel recordings. Anyway, he has a wonderful decode of this album up there. It’s well worth checking out. And incidentally, if you ever have the opportunity to pick up the officially released quad Sacd of Mysterious Traveler, go for it. The original quad mix by Ron Malo is clear and ungimmicky, and offers tremendous insights into the individual parts that make up the many layers of that mix. This is what quad is all about.

While we’re on the subject of uplifting albums to help me forget He Will Shall Not be Named, I’ve really been enjoying the Pat Metheny Group release, Imaginary Day in 5.1 Dvd audio. This one according to Metheny, was meant to be heard in surround sound, and really benefits from the spatial magic that only surround can impart to a mix. It’s a very dense mix, in a way the Pet Sounds of jazz albums. It was hard to come by a copy as it’s out of print, but well worth picking up. It sounds so freaking good. And the album is so expansive and spirited in the first place, at times I almost feel I’m in an alternate time line!

About 20 years ago, I was driving aimlessly along a stretch of Northern California coast highway, watching the sea and dreaming of possible destinies, while listening to a Berkeley public radio station. A program came on that was devoted to the life and music of one Raymond Scott, a name I was not familiar with at the time. The music, however, was very familiar; in fact, I knew some of the themes as if they were encoded in my very DNA! How could I know this strange, kinetic music that was like jazz and somehow not, and yet not have heard of this composer? The answer, of course, was simple: Carl Stalling, the composer for the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc. had borrowed liberally from Scott. In fact, the main themes of those cartoons were Scott’s.

 

I listened to music from Scott’s early days as a band leader, frenetic and humorous pieces with titles such as „Dinner Music for 100 Hungry Cannibals,“ „Reckless Night Aboard an Ocean Liner,“ and the ubiquitous „Powerhouse“ from the aforementioned cartoons. Having grown up in the first television generation, these pieces had unconsciously informed my earliest musical impressions. For better or worse, they were a part of me.

 

I learned a lot about Scott from the program. Not only was he a jazz composer and band leader in the 1930s, he was also a pioneer of early electronic music. He eventually gave up his focus on music to become a full-time inventor. He built some of the first sequencers—heavy duty, impressive-looking machinery that filled rooms with laboratory equipment. Scott was evidently a futurist. He was hired to do sound design for 1950s sci-fi films. He made three electronic lullabies albums that may very well be the first examples of ambient electronic music ever recorded. (They’re still in print and available on CD.) Bob Moog came to his laboratory to view his creations in awe. In the 1960s, he still found time to record a kind of bachelor pad/lounge  jazz album called The Unexpected with the „Secret Seven,“ whose lineup included jazz heavyweights Harry „Sweets“ Edison (tp), Sam „The Man“ Taylor (ts), Toots Thielemans (hca), Eddie Costa (p,vib), Kenny Burrell (g), Milt Hinton (b), and Elvin Jones (d).

 

Although fascinated by the program, I didn’t give it much thought after the show ended and went about my business. My „business“ that evening included a visit to a local convenience store to play a certain pinball machine which I was sort of obsessed with at the time. As I walked to the temple of my current addiction, with its seductive flashing lights and gaudy graphics beckoning, something odd caught my eye on an adjacent magazine rack. It was a single CD without a jewel box, naked, its shiny rainbow playing surface facing out. Curious, I instinctively picked it off the shelf and turned it over. The label said, „The Music of Raymond Scott.“

 

Now I’m not one to look for omens and signs everywhere, but when a synchronicity of this magnitude occurs, I do pause and pay attention. What significance did this Twilight Zone dream-like occurrence have for me? Scott was an eccentric maverick who went his own way. Perhaps that’s why the universe had so pointedly made me aware of him. Was this an indication of the direction I should take on my own artistic path?

 

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been attracted to music that was obscure, eccentric, and above all, original. Even before my ears matured and I knew I wanted to be a player/composer, I sought out the strange, exotic, and rare. Back in the 1960s, I was a kid in New York City with a transistor radio tuned into WBAI public radio. They had this free-form radio format late at night. I tuned in religiously, listening for the weird and wonderful. It was there I discovered, among others, the Incredible String Band; world jazz pioneers Oregon; player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow; Terry Riley, the father of minimalism; Lou Harrison, an important West Coast composer and proponent of world music; the outrageous poet/ band The Fugs; and iconoclastic composer Edgar Varese.

 

Once at a Singer Sewing machine store that inexplicably had a record rack, I was attracted to a strange looking album called Freak Out by the Mothers of Invention. I bought it on the spot. Thus I was introduced to yet another icon of individuality, Frank Zappa. My dad had an album of the music of Eric Satie whose naive but soulful piano miniatures spoke to me, and another record called Monk’s Music by a guy with the improbable name Thelonius Monk. I looked at the photo of that man sitting in a child’s wagon and listened to his music for the first time, thinking that it sounded as if the musicians were talking to each other when they played their solos. Also thinking, Hey, maybe I could do that someday!

 

What do all these seemingly unrelated artists have in common? It’s obvious, isn’t it? They were all mavericks who went their own way. I’m not saying everyone I listed was a „genius.“  But I will say they all exhibited characteristics I associate with the word.

 

I believe it was Miles Davis who once said, „It takes a long time to sound like yourself.“ Monk said almost the same thing when he scribbled his advice to players on a napkin: „A genius is the one who is most like himself.“ We all know instantly when an artist—whether it be a John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, Kenny Wheeler, Ralph Towner, Dhafer Youseff, Nguyen Le, Sufjan Stevens, Tigran Hamayasan, Joni Mitchell, or Bjork—sounds like him/herself. You can often tell from just a single note. Personally, this is the number one prerequisite that must be present if I am to be interested in an artist, regardless of genre.

 

So what is this elusive thing, this sounding like yourself, and how can one achieve it? I don’t have an answer. Sometimes I think this is a thing you’re just born with, but then again, perhaps it’s latent in all of us but all too often ignored, remaining undeveloped in most people.

 

For me at least, part of the equation of sounding like yourself is honesty. Young multi-instrumentalist/singer/composer Jacob Collier (check out his amazing videos on YouTube or his self- produced debut album, In My Room) identifies another piece of the puzzle: He says there has to be a feeling component in order for  music to touch us at the deepest level:

„For me, the greatest musicians are those who reach you at an emotional level – those who have so deep an understanding of sound on their instrument that they can use it to pull at your imagination and lift your emotions.

There are a lot of young musicians today, who are incredibly accomplished technicians, but who maybe lack a strong emotional connection with the music.

For me, the latter has always been the more important thing, and I think it’s the most universal.“

 

I remember once playing one of my tunes for a doctor-friend who was always brutally honest. He told me it sounded „as if I were trying to sound like something.“ He was right: Most of us mortals are unconsciously trying to sound like our heroes. It’s only when we stop and begin to listen to our inner voice that we can begin the journey towards having an authentic voice. Personally I think it’s always possible to develop one’s own voice no matter how old one is, despite the fact that many of the artists I love „sounded like themselves“ almost from the get-go.

 

Paradoxically, truly original work often comes from imitation, borrowing or even out and out stealing from one’s predecessors. I heard this recently on a Chris Potter piece for orchestra from the album, Gratitude. There it was, a fragment lifted from Paul McCandless’s „All the Mornings Bring,“ the same voicings and harmonic movement, even a similar woodwind orchestration. But somehow Potter transformed it and incorporated it into something of his own. Stravinsky once said, „Good composers borrow, great composers steal.“ This is not unlike Donald Fagen’s response to the accusation that he stole from Keith Jarrett’s „Just as Long as You’re Living Yours“ for the intro to his song“Gaucho.“ Fagen replied unapologetically, „Hey, we’re the robber barons of rock ’n roll!“

 

The other piece of sounding like yourself is that in order for an artist to connect to a larger audience, there needs to be a kind of universality in what they express, something of the artist’s humanity that speaks to the collective human experience. A quote by Emerson (not Keith, Ralph Waldo!) comes to mind: „To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.“ So believing in the intrinsic value of one’s work would seem to be part of the equation as well.

 

Thomas Edison supposedly said, „genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.“ Which turns out to be true. Any innate abilities one may be gifted with have to be cultivated or will lay fallow, never destined to come to fruition. Stravinsky comes to mind, a man who viewed composing music much the same one does any other job. He clocked in with his coffee in the morning and continued until lunch. Then he headed back to his „closet“ (a small room with a piano), glass of red wine in hand, and continued until dinner. And he did this daily, year in, year out.

 

We occasionally hear stories about masters who don’t seem to need to sweat in order to create. Mozart supposedly could just compose in his head and then write it all down without a single edit. Same with Joe Zawinul, who constantly improvised to tape. According to Zawinul, when he needed tunes for a new album, he simply went through his tapes until he found things he liked, claiming he transcribed them without changing a single note. These stories are apocryphal, and I suspect they originate with the artists themselves, who perhaps enjoyed propagating the myth that they were superhuman. Well they were anyway, even if they had to edit their compositions! There are rumors that Mozart asked his wife to burn his sketches when he died, and I suspect Zawinul altered a few things when he committed his spontaneous compositions to paper. I mean, really, how could he not be tempted to do so? And would knowing that diminish either artist’s work or make it less beautiful?

 

In writing this article I’ve had time to reflect on my own personal artistic journey and how difficult it is to „sound like yourself.“ After some four decades of trying, I’m still figuring it out. And I plan to keep working on it.

 

By the way, there is an addendum to my Raymond Scott story: A few days after my synchronous adventure with Mr. Scott, I did a web search and found a really cool website (www.raymondscott.net) where one can learn everything one ever wanted to know about the iconoclastic hipster musician/inventor. I wrote the webmaster and told him my story. The next day I received an email that said, „Thanks for your story. We hear many such stories regarding Mr. Scott. By the way, you wrote that email on his birthday.“


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